Privacy officials from six nations want answers about Google Glass

Filed Under: Featured, Google, Privacy

Letter to Google. Image courtesy of ShutterstockThe privacy officials of six countries and the European Commission have a host of questions about Google Glass, wouldn't mind getting their hands on the devices, and are wondering why, exactly, Google hasn't rung most of them up to hash out the privacy issues.

In an open letter to Google CEO Larry Page, the privacy overseers mused about not being consulted regarding privacy in the internet-enabled head gear:

We understand that other companies are developing similar products, but you are a leader in this area, the first to test your product "in the wild" so to speak, and the first to confront the ethical issues that such a product entails. To date, however, most of the data protection authorities listed below have not been approached by your company to discuss any of these issues in detail.

The letter - signed by 36 worldwide privacy officials from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Switzerland and Israel, several Canadian provinces, and a representative from the EC's privacy-focused Article 29 Working Party - notes that Glass has been the subject of many articles that have "raised concerns about the obvious, and perhaps less obvious, privacy implications of a device that can be worn by an individual and used to film and record audio of other people."

In light of people's "fears of ubiquitous surveillance", questions about Google's collection of such data, and how Google's revamped privacy policy will come to bear, the letter posed these privacy-related questions:

  • How does Google Glass comply with data protection laws?
  • What are the privacy safeguards Google and application developers are putting in place?
  • What information does Google collect via Glass and what information is shared with third parties, including application developers?
  • How does Google intend to use this information?
  • While we understand that Google has decided not to include facial recognition in Glass, how does Google intend to address the specific issues around facial recognition in the future?
  • Is Google doing anything about the broader social and ethical issues raised by such a product, for example, the surreptitious collection of information about other individuals?
  • Has Google undertaken any privacy risk assessment the outcomes of which it would be willing to share?
  • Would Google be willing to demonstrate the device to our offices and allow any interested data protection authorities to test it?

As it is, the privacy commissioners write, most of what they know comes from media reports, most of which contain "a great deal" of speculation about how Glass operates, how it could be used and what Google's going to do with the data the devices collect.

Privacy world. Image courtesy of ShutterstockIf this raises a feeling of déjà vu, that's because the privacy caucus of the US Congress asked similar questions of Google in May.

The deadline to answer was June 14, but if Google did reply, I've missed its answers.

The privacy officials who signed the letter wrote that they're "very interested" to hear the privacy implications of Glass and how, exactly, Google plans to ensure that individuals' privacy rights are respected around the world.

They're looking forward to hearing some answers, they say - but then, that goes for pretty much all of us.

Image of Google Glass letter and privacy world map courtesy of Shutterstock.

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11 Responses to Privacy officials from six nations want answers about Google Glass

  1. Ali · 840 days ago

    Nice post ! this is a big issue for google to ensure security in google glass but i think they will go for eye ball scanning for that, but everyone is looking / waiting answer from them.


  2. Terry · 840 days ago

    Come on is an extension of the cell phone.

    These abilities have been around for years, they are just now being packaged attached to a very ugly looking pair of non-glasses. Where are the "privacy" concerns about the millions of cameras we are exposed to every day, most of which are capable of facial recognition etc.

    Unless you are in your own home and you strictly control what happens there, there is no privacy.

    Recently my 15 year old daughter with a liver disease had to take a trip by airplane. When she asked for a visual inspection of her medication (xrays has been known to change the properties of some medications), they subjected her to a very embarrassing pat down search right there in front of everyone. Someone tell me why that was necessary? She still went through the normal security as everyone else, just asked for the visual inspection on a small bag of medicine.

    We Americans have already given away so many of our rights and most expectations privacy wen away a long time ago. Ironically I do not believe we are that much different than most other nations. Officials like to put up these political fronts but the reality is they only wish they could have developed (or kept) the ability to themselves.

    I am not a Google fan but int his case I say GO GOOGLE!!! and hurry up, I want some glass myself :)

    • Lisa Vaas · 840 days ago

      Whenever somebody brings up the "it's no different from cellphones" argument, I think of the journalist who wore a pair into a Starbucks. The first employee he ran into asked if he was recording.

      "No," he answered. He was lying, as I recall.

      Neither the cashier nor any other employee asked.

      The point being, you can't really tell if they're recording. And as is often brought up, pointing your head at somebody is a lot more discreet than aiming a cellphone or camera.

      That, I would say, is the main differentiator between Glass and our current state of consumer-level surveillance devices: a highly increased ability to record surreptitiously.

      Facial recognition will eventually make its way into the device as well. People point to Google's decision not to incorporate it, but the salient point there is the "yet." Google's not incorporating FR until it gets the privacy angles worked out. To its own satisfaction, I would assume? At which point you have to decide for yourself how much you trust Google with privacy.

      And, at which point, I'm always reminded of its lengthy rap sheet on privacy—searchable as "Google privacy rap sheet."

      • Hearth · 839 days ago

        I have to disagree, Lisa. There are many "micro-recorders", pinhole or button cameras, and recording devices (both audio and video) surreptitiously disguised as everyday objects such as pens or key-fobs, or already incorporated into wearable formats such as glasses. These are available off the shelf from a number of stores for very reasonable prices. One only has to peruse a store like ThinkGeek (which I am not criticizing here, just to be clear) to see a sampling.

        It would be easier for a person wishing to record unnoticed to wear a pen-camera/mic in their pocket – this would, I suggest, go completely unquestioned and achieve the same result. At least with Google Glass the presence of a device with such capabilities is obvious, and if concerned, a business proprietor could require their removal. (There have been examples discussed in this very blog) I really don’t see that this side of the technology is anything novel. It is simply pushing a particular usage of it into the limelight.

        I actually think facial recognition would allow significant benefits in such a product, and with the advent of auto-tagging facial recognition on Facebook and such sites I don’t see it as being any different. I am however, a supporter of the opt-out initiative, and would hope that something like this would be incorporated into Google’s developments. As one of the few people who still really care about this level of privacy, I would not be adverse to wearing/carrying such a tag. Perhaps in the future it could be as simple as a TagMeNot RFID style fob on my key ring, which Glass can automatically detect and prevent scanning.

        At any rate, I hope the development of technology is not stifled because of such concerns.

        • Lisa Vaas · 835 days ago

          Thanks, Hearth. I hadn't actually heard of the TagMeNot opt-out initiative, and I'm glad to learn of it. You're right, of course, that we've had micro recording devices for some time, enabling stealthy recording. It's the combination of FR with any of these recording devices that's alarming. An opt-out technology could be a step in the right direction if it were to be implemented correctly.

          But then again, that's a big if when we're talking about Facebook and data. The company's most recent data breach shed light on how opting out from sharing certain types of information is irrelevant, given that Facebook will create a shadow account with all your details, gleaned from contacts who decide to share address book information with the company. What good does it do to refrain from sharing your address, birth date or phone number with Facebook, if in fact the company data mines your friends' address books to find all that information on you (and then, oops, fumbles that data, as it did).

          I too hope that the development of technology isn't stifled because of such concerns, but I think the concerns are solid enough to warrant, if not stifled development, all due diligence, care and caution.

    • Me too! When these governments are HALF as concerned about their own intrusions into our privacy then they can question Google's privacy policies.

  3. Randy · 840 days ago

    These guys are really paranoid. How does Google Glass comply with data protection laws? You could ask the same question about a Kodak camera or any pocket sized digital audio recorder. If your data needs protection then it's up to you to keep that data private. You can't expect people to walk around with earplugs and blinders all day long just because your precious data is out in the open.

  4. Guest · 840 days ago

    I think the difference is that everything that is recorded on a cell phone or audio recorder is not automatically uploaded to Google's servers.

  5. Juan · 839 days ago

    The first thing that occurs to me when I see people who don't think Google Glass is one of the downright creepiest ideas ever conceived by humankind is, "What do these people use for sense?"

    But then I remember the fact that something like a billion people are active Facebag users (if you can believe Facebag's numbers), and that kind of puts the epidemic lack of concern for personal privacy in perspective.

    But I still think Google Glass pegs the creepy meter.

  6. Ocean Midge · 839 days ago

    I completely fail to understand the whole furore around Glass (specifically) and how it can be used to record without the subjects knowledge. There are already a multitude of ways I could record someone covertly. Are people going to change their behaviour suddenly because someone nearby is wearing Glass? Nowadays it's pretty safe to assume that if you're in a public place something is recording you anyway (probably CCTV) so I don't get what the whole big deal is about yet another camera potentially being there - particularly given that someone wearing Glass is pretty obvious. A buttonhole camera, or one of those pen cameras you can buy for about $3 these days, is much more stealthy than some curious-looking eyewear.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.